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Paterson; Or How A Movie Can Also Be A Poem


Directed by Jim Jarmusch, a new film speaks of the small and the monotonous, and of the poetry in each of life’s details.

Gentle, like floating clouds, the words of a poem (equally small) cross the screen. Just as smoothly passes time in Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s latest film. Paterson is at once the name of the film’s protagonist and that of the town of New Jersey where he lives. The film is also an open poetic homage to the namesake of William Carlos Williams (one of the greatest poets of the last century).

Selected for the official competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, the film is an essay on art and the process of creation, personified in its protagonist, a modest bus driver. He’s also secretly a poet and a great admirer of the work of Williams. (In the film, Williams is also originally from the town of Paterson.)  The story is told simply, with no haste, in seven parts, for the seven days of the week in the life of this singular protagonist. Contrary to what might be expected, the daily, monotonous life of the man creates a beautiful rhythm that, rather than tiring, hypnotizes, and draws attention to the tiniest details of his peaceful daily life.

It’s also a movie about the seldom seen magic of ritual. Paterson wakes up every day at the same time (with no need for an alarm clock). His breakfast is the same cereal, and he walks the same streets to his job, where a public bus awaits. Paterson tries to arrive a few minutes early to use the extra time to write his poems into a secret notepad. (The audience can hear them as they’re formed in his mind.) During his work day, he listens attentively to the conversations of the strangers who board the bus (the inspiration for his poetry). Finally, he walks back home to dine with his partner, Laura (whose name she shares with the beloved of the poet, Petrarch). He takes his dog for a walk, has a beer in the neighborhood bar and goes home to sleep. And the next day he’ll do exactly the same.

Paterson refuses to own a cell phone, and he’s horrified every time Laura tries to convince him to publish what she refers to as “high quality poetry.” He finds great pleasure in writing discreetly, and that’s all he cares about. It’s one of several references in the film to Emily Dickinson, another poet who never wished to publish her work. The character of Laura, charming, impulsive and inconsistent, works as a counterbalance to the millimetric accuracy of each of the things that happen in the life of her lover.

Paterson William Carlos

Despite being a film immersed in deeply philosophical considerations, Paterson is full of a humor to balance the melancholy which floods both the poet and the world around him. The dramatic tension of the film is both profoundly subtle and modest (like Paterson’s poems). Everything is beautifully small, in both triumph and tragedy. Among these is the film’s most dramatic moment: when Laura’s dog (the antithesis and enemy of Paterson) destroys his notebook of poetry. It’s an epic and painful loss.

As in all of the films of Jarmusch (who studied English and American literature), references to books and writers abound like hidden treasures. The volume Paterson reads every day while eating his lunch is Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, and the poems which Paterson composes in the film were actually written by Ron Padgett and, evidently, by William Carlos Williams.

It is a story in which everything is tiny but nevertheless transcendental. The film is, among other things, a guide to finding art and beauty in daily life and its monotony, in routine moments, in the conversations we hear and the faces we encounter, and in the time we spend alone, in modesty and simplicity. Jarmusch seems to agree with what Williams once suggested: poetry can be found in the most unexpected of places, as in the life and adventures of a bus driver or even in a movie. Because Paterson is a poem not only in the metaphorical sense, its structure divided into seven days, it can also be seen as the seven stanzas of a poetic composition in which each fragment is similar, but never quite the same (like the days in the life of the poet from Paterson).

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